While both nominees love to talk about their big agendas for change, whoever wins will take office with his obligations defined and options constrained by what Bush dumps on his lap.
The focus right now – and probably for many months to come – is the bailout binge aimed at saving our financial system. All told, the government will likely put more than $1 trillion on the line (with hope that the money will be recouped down the road).
Then there are the two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their combined cost is fast approaching $1 trillion, too – and both will eat up the time and budgets of the next president.
Then there is also the prescription drug benefit Bush added to Medicare. It carries a projected price tag of nearly $700 billion over 10 years and serves as a powerful reminder of how big – untenably big, many experts say – our entitlement programs have grown.
None of that spending was cooked into the federal budget when Bush took office eight years ago, leaving a budgetary hole almost too deep to comprehend. It will tie the hands of President McCain or President Obama in ways neither candidate has reckoned with yet on the campaign trail.
“It’s really a federal fiscal catastrophe in coming years,” says Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute, a libertarian-oriented think tank. “With all this stuff coming up now, it’s massive, big decisions the next president is going to have to make.”
As the candidates debate the nuances of their health care plans or tax cuts, consider:
How can you cut taxes when the government is so deep in the red? The budget deficit was projected to top $400 billion – and that was before the bailout.
How can you expand health care coverage when the country is broke? The federal debt is now expected to top $11 trillion by 2010.
How can you focus on “earmarks” and “waste” when everyone knows they make up a meaningless fraction of the federal budget?
How you tackle spending without a serious discussion of serious cuts to Medicare and Social Security, which account for 43.5 percent of federal spending?
How can you focus on anything but war, when you inherit two conflicts with outcomes that are very much in doubt? (U.S commanders say the war in Afghanistan is going worse then ever and will require many more troops to win.)
A lesson of the Bush binge is the awesome weight of the choice for president. His eight years of surprises show that you never know exactly what you’re voting for.
He ran as a compassionate conservative who promised to practice a humble foreign policy and to restrain domestic spending. Instead, he launched two big wars and oversaw the biggest expansion of federal government in history.
He was obviously shaped by big events: the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and now the meltdown of the nation’s financial structure. They serve as a powerful reminder that what candidates say during these campaigns usually isn’t the best guide to how they will govern in office.
In Friday's debate, the candidates paid only glancing attention to the fiscal state of the nation they will run. There was virtually no talk about rising Medicare costs or the fiscal fallout of running two wars.
Both candidates continue to talk about their plans as if it's 2000. McCain even said in a CNBC interview last week that he thinks he can still deliver on his promise to extend the Bush tax cuts and balance the budget in his first term. Good luck.
Obama seems to be catching on. In a companion CNBC interview, he suggested he would be able to stick to his plans for spending on health care, education, energy, middle-class tax cuts and the environment.
But in a later conversatio on NBC’s “Today” show, he acknowledged that in light of the Wall Street package, he wouldn’t be able to do everything right away (which of course you can’t anyway, since the agenda has to go through Congress).
Now, Obama says he’ll seek to phase in his plans, though he offers little detail.
So Bush’s legacy is not just his own. He has also written an expensive, painful opening chapter for the next guy.
Alexander Burns contributed to this story.